31 December 2015

A day beyond price

It's 9:45 am, December 31. In about nine hours from now I'll be sharing the evening out with my people. We'll have delicious pizzas made by my husband. He'll take five balls of well-proofed dough, flatten each a little and pat it slightly on both sides in semolina. Then, leaning over a marbled worktop, he'll press it by hand into a symmetrical circle, he'll make it look very easy and effortless, as if it's nothing to manually press and stretch a ball of dough into a thin, smooth, promising round. In less than a quarter of an hour from then, our lips will be covered in oven-hot paprika-red juices from salami picante, which we will wipe off with the heels of our hands, which will stain our clothes, which we won't notice until tomorrow. Greasy fingerprints will cover our glasses. 

After Anthony is done with his shift, the kitchen light out, we'll head outside to light a box of fireworks from last year. The night will be brilliant, I hope it will be rainless too. Closer to midnight the two of us will race home, we'll probably make it with only a few minutes to spare before more fireworks erupt with glee, rip through the dark sky, replace oxygen with sulphur. We'll open a bottle of Benoît Lahaye Brut, pop, and cut into a fine, rich, soft panettone, the knife will only sigh through it and clink against the plate. The champagne will taste like freshly baked puff pastry and vanilla cream, the panettone, redolent with candied citrus peel and yeast, will give on the tongue. We'll watch the fireworks from our balcony.

11.45 am. I measure out butter for Yotam Ottolenghi's spice cookies. This is a fourth batch this month.

Some time before Christmas I give one of these spice cookies to Olivia the Cat Lady. She asks what's in it. "Oh, there is liqueur in it?" She sounds surprised, emphasizes 'liqueur', lifts it and stretches it like an accordion. "I shall wait till evening to have it. I don't like liqueur in the morning", she says. "But thank you very much, very nice of you!" She wraps it in a napkin, puts it in her heavy-duty bag, next to a can of cat food and a roll of wrapping paper with reindeer on it. She'll tell me in a day she loved the cookie very much.

Sounds already crackle through the air like a child playing with bubble wrap.

A day beyond price. 

Spice Cookies

Adapted from Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Yield: 16 cookies

Complex, laden with winter spices, chocolate, citrus zest, and currants soaked in liqueur, with the crumb that is like velvet, and with the top thinly coated with sharp lemon glazing, they are wonderful, mysterious, perfect winter cookies. I bet they'll remind you of Terry's Chocolate Orange. Only these are better!

Notes: You can use brandy to soak the currants as in the original recipe. I myself don't like brandy, find it abrasive, pervasive. Honey liqueur on the other hand, Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey for example, does well by these. Next, I cut down on sugar in the glazing by one-fourth but there still was enough of it to provide for that ever so delicate snap. In the cookie dough, I replaced superfine sugar with dark brown sugar. And last, I grated zest both from a whole orange and a whole lemon for the lot, because for these cookies you don't stop grating either at half a teaspoon.

125 g currants 
2 tablespoons honey liqueur (see notes above)
240 g plain flour
7 g best-quality cocoa powder
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ teaspoon each ground cinnamon, allspice, ginger and nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
150 g good-quality dark chocolate, finely ground
125 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
125 g dark brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
grated zest of a medium orange
grated zest of a medium lemon
½ medium free-range egg
1 tablespoon finely diced candied citrus peel

3 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
120 g icing sugar

Soak the currants in the honey liqueur for 10 minutes. Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, then add the spices, salt and dark chocolate. Mix well with a whisk.

In a medium bowl, beat the butter, sugar, vanilla and lemon and orange zest to combine but not aerate too much, about a minute. Add the egg and beat for another minute. Add the dry ingredients, followed by the currants and honey liqueur. Mix until everything just comes together.

Gently knead the dough in the bowl with your hands until it is uniform. Divide the dough into 50g chunks and shape them into round balls. Place on one or two baking sheets lined with baking paper, about 2cm apart, and rest in the fridge for at least an hour.

Heat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Bake the cookies for 15 minutes, until the top firms up but the centre is still slightly soft. Remove from the oven. Once the cookies are out of the oven, allow to cool for 5 minutes only, and then transfer to a wire rack.

While the cookies are still warm, whisk together the glaze ingredients until a thin and smooth icing is formed. Pour a generous teaspoon of the glaze over each cookie, leaving it to drip and coat the cookie with a very thin, almost transparent film. Repeat this step for a thicker glaze. Finish each with three pieces of candied peel placed at the centre. Leave to set and serve, or store in an airtight container for up to a week.